A college student studies in his room at the University of Cambridge by the Forward

The kids are not all right — and Jewish educators on college campuses know it

Reports about Jewish life on campus often focus either on our laudable collective successes or on experiences of antisemitism. After a decade of working on college campuses with leading Hillel foundations, I believe a lot of good things are happening on campus for Jewish students and that these positives outweigh the challenges. But if you have a student coming home to visit for Thanksgiving or winter break, I hope you’ll listen for something else: whether they feel a sense of belonging.

Opinion | The kids are not all right — and Jewish educators on campuses know it

That question probes a stark reality that no one has commissioned a survey about: the number of Jewish campus professionals who have talked one-on-one to students about their stress, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts. It would probably shock most of us if we did.

Even before the pandemic, students were struggling with stress and other mental health disorders. The Healthy Minds survey in 2018-2019 revealed that close to 40% of college students were experiencing a significant mental health problem. Recent data show that the pandemic has worsened some of these trends. Suicide is one of the most common causes of death in this age cohort.

Opinion | The kids are not all right — and Jewish educators on campuses know it

Many college students are not OK, emotionally, and this also plays out in the Jewish realm. Students can be excited to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Sukkot with their friends, and at the same time be exhausted by the return to hybrid academic courses with truncated schedules during the holidays. They can be dancing at Kabbalat Shabbat one minute, and a short while later expressing outrage over a programmatic detail about Shabbat dinner. My own sense from talking to hundreds of students this fall is that underlying a lot of this is a mixture of anger and fear. Many students feel angry about their missed opportunities because of the pandemic, and their fear can be related to so many social or political issues — it’s a scary world.

After a year of social distancing, students came to campus this fall with a deficit of what scholars call “social capital” — feelings of belonging, trusting others, feeling comfortable asking for help. The return to in-person college life has been polarized the same way politics and COVID have polarized the country.

Opinion | The kids are not all right — and Jewish educators on campuses know it

College counseling centers have been strained by steadily climbing rates of anxiety and depression. They’re increasingly short staffed too. Some campuses are working on holistic and comprehensive strategies. They try through workshops to raise awareness and reduce stigma. Students are encouraged to “reach out” and “ask for help” — but this is often not enough.

We’re fortunate to have several full-time rabbis at my campus, Brandeis University. Together we provide spiritual support, and all our Hillel staff have ongoing training to deal with mental health issues. We’ve started to wonder whether large gatherings are effective ways to provide a sense of belonging. For some people, going to a Shabbat dinner with 200 people can be challenging socially, and this is complicated by the added fear of disease. Limiting the number of people to create a more intimate social environment can be an unwelcome reminder of social distancing.

It takes time to relearn how to socialize and how to balance academic demands. Students’ (and their parents’) expectations of themselves, their peers, and their rabbis are often unrealistic. Friends and mentors aren’t a substitute for a therapist, but the strength of many Hillels is their student leaders’ infectious passion and energy. Campus professionals are juggling policies, staff shortages, and fundraising. There is a delicate balance between providing much needed pastoral care to students, offering programs, and preventing burnout.

I want every Jewish student to leave college with more Jewish social capital and with positive memories of Torah learning, Shabbat, and a visit to Israel at a formative stage of life. Yet given the current trends, in the short-term parents should probably be glad if their student reports a sense of belonging in any campus group — the student newspaper, an intramural sport, a music group, an astronomy club. Be overjoyed if they feel a sense of belonging to (any) Jewish group.

When your kids and grandkids are home for a break, please consider an extra measure of compassion. Take an interest in their experiences and listen for two things: First, are they meeting people they can connect with so that they feel a sense of belonging? And second: have they found a trustworthy mentor? Whether a rabbinic educator, a professor, a coach, or an internship supervisor, students thrive when they have a connection to someone who believes in and inspires them. Most importantly, please remember to ask them how they are doing, and really listen. You may be surprised by the answer you get.

To contact the author, email editorial@forward.com.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

Author

Seth Winberg

Rabbi Seth Winberg serves as Executive Director of Brandeis Hillel, and as the University’s senior chaplain and Director of Spiritual Life.

The kids are not all right — and Jewish educators on college campuses know it

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